Becoming a Public Historian: Kate Sudakova

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit.

The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Kate Sudakova about her project.

A little bit about Kate: “I am from the small city of Astrakhan which stands on the Volga river in Russia. Astrakhan is known as the Russian capital of caviar. Since I was born, I was surrounded by people who knew everything about sturgeons and caviar, my parents and my grandmother. My family has been involved in aquaculture and sturgeon breeding for more than 20 years. I spent my childhood on a fish farm and learned a lot about fish that have been on our planet since the age of the dinosaurs. So, when the opportunity to create my own project arose, I had no doubt about the topic of the research. I wanted to carry on the legacy of my family and help save these unique and amazing species.”

 

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

KS: Since I started studying history at university, I always wondered in what ways I could use my knowledge in real life. In the second year I had a brief introduction into the public history but due to COVID I couldn’t fully engage with it. Nevertheless, I’ve finally found an answer to my question and was eager to try myself in producing something valuable for a non-academic audience. When I found out about the Practice-Based Dissertation I understood that it was my chance to make a real contribution and apply my knowledge in practice.

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

KS: My project is a combination of environmental history, public history and environmentalism. I addressed the problem which I’ve been familiar with since my early childhood – the problem of sturgeon extinction in the Volga-Caspian region. My research and practical output focused on the USSR industrialisation, construction of hydroelectric power stations along the Volga river, in particular, and discussed its effects on the natural habitat of sturgeons. With my project I intended to introduce a fresh look at this problem, from a historical point of view.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

KS: The Caspian sturgeon makes up 90% of the world reserves of various sturgeon species. To the present moment, connection between the USSR industrialisation and sturgeon extinction has not been explicitly highlighted. The majority of people consider poaching the main cause of the problem,  while damming of the Volga river produced an almost equally detrimental ecological effect. With my project I wanted to raise awareness about this critical situation.

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: To be honest, I enjoyed everything! From the research to the practical implementation. From the very beginning I understood that with my project I could really make a difference and tell people about a very important problem. I myself learned a lot and was terrified with the scale of the issue. So with every document I read, I was convinced that I was doing the right thing with producing this project.

JM: What did you find challenging?

KS: Probably the biggest challenge was the lack of information about the topic in English. As a native Russian speaker, I did not have a problem with understanding but translating the material into English was quite difficult and time consuming. I conducted two almost 2-hour interviews, both in Russian, and had to translate almost everything to include several parts in my documentary.

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

KS: I had one major problem at the final stage of my practical output production. I had some help with video editing and the document was too big to be downloaded to any cloud storage. This meant that I couldn’t check it and upload to YouTube. Finally, I decided to ask a person who did the editing to upload the film using my YouTube account and, fortunately, everything worked out great.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

KS: I’ve learnt that everything can be solved and there is no need to panic or worry. Just sit and think about all possible options, one of them will always work.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

KS: I genuinely think that public history should be taught more on history courses. I myself was briefly introduced into the field only during my second year. If history students knew more about it, I’m sure that much more of them would want to explore it and become public historians. On the practical side, I would say that my main recommendation is not to overthink when it comes to the practical output. Always keep in mind that the audience is non-academic and not everything a historian understands would be clear to a non-historian.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: My main advice is to find a topic which you’re really interested in. This way you will enjoy every aspect of your practice-based dissertation and will produce a truly amazing project!

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

KS: Through the website I produced, which you can find here!

JM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KS: I want to encourage third year history students to take the practice-based dissertation because it is an unforgettable experience where you could actually see how history can be useful outside the university walls.

Past Matter, Object 6: A Roundel

This week Lesley Kinsley, a postgraduate research student in the department, shares a roundel displaying a bird that is extraordinarily important in environmental history.

l2a

I only bought this recently and it is a copy of a section of a beautiful window in the main house at the National Trust Tyntesfield estate near Bristol. The Trust sells this roundel as a pigeon in its shop, but the estate owners made their fortune exporting Peruvian guano and I am convinced that this is just one of three main types of guano producing bird. Its excrement was dug from beneath it and exported as fertiliser, making it one of the most valuable birds in the world. It still lives and breeds off the coast of Peru, but in much smaller numbers, oblivious to the importance of its place in history. It will always remain a strong symbol to me of the significance of past human interventions in landscapes and the ecosystem changes that ensued – and why environment is such an essential component of historical study.

Past Matter, Object No. 5: Earthworms

This week’s object, isn’t really an object, but a group of animals. Our final year undergraduate student Ben Eagle explains how these earthworms have inspired his history dissertation.

b2a

Earthworms have only recently become an historical interest of mine although I have had a soft spot for them, working and walking in the fields of the Essex landscape, as long as I can remember. As some of the oldest animals on the planet they fascinate me as much as they fascinated Charles Darwin who published a lengthy treatise on earthworms in 1881. These particular worms, a family of 80 eisenia foetida, a species of compost worm, were kindly given to me by a fellow Bristol undergraduate. They connect me to the soil and to the past, both personally and intellectually and they have inspired me to both pursue environmental history and to push boundaries in my writing, particularly relating to how we can study the natural sciences alongside the humanities.

Fruits of Historical Collaboration

The Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funded an Orchard Heritage Project that Professor Peter Coates organized, has produced a podcast about its activities, which was filmed and recorded on site during Quantock Apple Heritage Day on 19 October 2013. This kind of project illustrates the Department’s outward looking nature and its public engagement ethos. The Department’s team at this event included two MA students who are taking the Public History unit. Sara Davis and Heather Hammer helped record apple and orchard stories and memories related by local residents who attended.